Big Island Hiking: Captain Cook Monument Trail

Last Updated on April 13, 2019 by Janet Frost

The island of Hawaii, aka the Big Island, is 4000 sq miles. This compares to Maui at 700, Oahu at 600 and Kauai at 500 square miles. Thanks to the eruptions of Kilauea in 2018, the island is even a little bigger. The variety of terrains and climates reflect the Big Island’s size. There are lush green rainforests, barren black lava fields, colorful sandy beaches, dramatic ocean cliffs and a peak above the clouds. As you can imagine, hiking on the Big Island is spectacular. One hiking hidden gem is the Captain Cook Monument Trail.

Let’s Go Learn Things about the Captain Cook Monument Trail…

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook(1728-1779). Nathaniel Dance. BHC2628

Captain James Cook was a British explorer, navigator, and cartographer, Cook made three voyages to the south Pacific. He made the first recorded European contact with Australia and the Hawaiian Islands.

Cook made Hawaiian landfall in January 1778 at Waimea harbour, Kauai. He named the region the “Sandwich Islands” honoring his friend the Earl of Sandwich. A year later Commander James Cook and his ship the Resolution, found safe harbor in Kealakekua Bay. Beautiful Kealakekua Bay was sacred to the inhabitants. The Hawaiians believed Cook and crew to be gods. After a month of living like “gods”, one of the crewmen died and the immortal jig was up. Having overstayed their welcome, the Resolution and crew quickly pulled out of Kealakekua harbor.

With the luck of the godless, Cook encountered a severe storm and had to return to the bay. A much less welcoming native community eventually attacked the crew and James Cook was killed in the skirmish.

Kealakekua Bay

This sacred bay is teeming with sea life, stunning colors and honored Hawaiian history. Pods of spinner dolphins frolic in the bay, massive sacred cliffs soar vertically along the east rim. Tucked into the far northwest corner of Kealakekua Bay, along the Kona coast, is the Captain Cook Monument. In the shadow of the monument is some of the best snorkeling I have ever experienced.

The prize at the end of the Captain Cook Monument Trail is a paradise  billed as the only underwater state park that has no paved road access.  That leaves three ways to reach the destination.

  • Rent a kayak on the far side of the Bay and spend an hour kayaking across. From your kayak you are up close and personal with the spinner dolphins. You must have a state permit and you must be very careful with your kayak when you get to the fragile area of the monument and snorkeling site. This can be a rigorous trip if you are not accustomed to kayaking, and the kayaks available for rent are not sleek and efficient.
  • Book a sightseeing/snorkeling trip through a boat tour group.  These big tourist-laden catamarans explain the occasional overcrowding at this site.  We typically avoid these tours if at all possible.
  • Hike with your snorkel gear down the Captain Cook Trail. This trail is a 1300 foot descent to the bay.  It ends right on the beach where the monument resides.

Captain Cook Monument Trail

The Captain Cook Monument Trail on The Big Island is an interesting combination of remoteness and tourist overload.  The trail leads to the   monument commemorating Capt Cook and his demise. This trail takes you from the cliffs above to the spectacular bay and beach below.

The trailhead is pretty hidden. If it weren’t for the mass of cars trying to park along the very narrow shoulders of Nāpō’opo’o Road you could drive right past.

“ …drive 500 feet down Nāpō’opo’o Road and park near telephone pole #4, on the mauka (uphill) side of the road.”

A trail with a 1300’ drop should be expected to be slightly treacherous going down.  It was hard packed and did not seem terribly steep going down.  You need good closed-toe shoes (Keens were ok but no flip flops) because of the rocks and there is no shade so that  hard-pack gets very hot.  As a matter of fact everything and everyone gets very hot.  Therefore you need plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat.  Overall the trail was very doable….going down

Spoiler Alert

A hike featuring a 1300 ft descent means a return hike featuring a 1300 ft climb. We started our day about 10:00 AM so after the descent, two rounds of snorkeling and our picnic, the ascent was about 1:30. Every charming aspect of the hike down now took an ugly turn as we headed up.  The bright vista from before was now a blazing sun, the hard packed path now seemed littered with loose and sharp rocks. Our snorkeling gear we blithely carried down, now seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. The drinking water was hot enough to boil tea and our backs were sporting a brilliant “snorkeling sunburn”. We reached our Jeep very hot and exhausted.

The key to any hike is preparation. This is a steep hot hike at midday. Start early, stay late, and be smart with your pack. Plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat should take precedence. Make room for our snorkeling gear though, because this little cove has the best snorkeling.

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